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Mastering the Sunny 16 Rule: A Guide for Film Photography Beginners

Updated: Feb 26

Today, we’re going to explore a classic technique that has guided photographers for decades: the Sunny 16 Rule. This rule is a simple and effective way to ensure you get well-exposed photos, even without a light meter.


A picture of a hand holding up a light meter.
When you're missing one of these, who ya gonna call?

What is the Sunny 16 Rule?

The Sunny 16 Rule is a method of estimating correct daylight exposures without a light meter. This rule states that on a sunny day, setting your aperture to f/16 and your shutter speed to the reciprocal of the ISO (for example, ISO 100 and 1/125s shutter speed) will yield a photo with an acceptable exposure.


This rule was so fundamental to film photography that it used to be printed on the inserts in film boxes, serving as a handy reference for photographers.


 

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Applying the Sunny 16 Rule

Let’s start with a base scenario: it’s a bright sunny day between 10am-12pm or 2pm-4pm. You’re shooting with an ISO of 100 and a shutter speed of 1/125. According to the Sunny 16 Rule, you can set your aperture to f/16 and you’ll get an acceptably exposed photograph.


A photograph of Greenwich Power Station taken from Island Gardens.
Metered using the Sunny 16 rule, it was clearly beautiful sunshine (something we're not used to here in London!) and I had ISO 100 film in, so it was simple to select f/16 and 1/125s for my exposure. Photo credit: Michael Elliott


Combining the Sunny 16 rule and a solid understanding of the exposure triangle will allow you to get well exposed photos every time.


Adjusting for Different Conditions

Of course, not every day is going to be bright and sunny. Here’s how you can adjust the Sunny 16 Rule for different situations:


  • Open Shade or Heavy Cloud: Switch your aperture to f/5.6.

  • Snow or Beach Scenes: These scenes are highly reflective, so you might need to close down your aperture to f/22.

  • Midday Sun: The sun is at its brightest, so you might need to use a smaller aperture like f/22.

  • Closer to the Poles vs Closer to the Equator: The intensity of sunlight varies with latitude. You might need to adjust your settings accordingly.


The following table is a quick ready reckoner for the most common conditions and film speeds:


Sunny Distinct Shadows

Hazy Sun Soft Shadows

Cloudy Barely Visible Shadows

Overcast No Shadows

F-Stop

f / 16

f / 11

f / 8

f / 5.6

ISO 100

1/125

1/125

1/125

1/125

ISO 200

1/250

1/250

1/250

1/250

ISO 400

1/500

1/500

1/500

1/500

ISO 800

1/1000

1/1000

1/1000

1/1000

Remember that these are starting points which you can then vary from by inversely adjusting the f/stop and shutter speed (so for sunny conditions at ISO 200, you could use 1/250 at f/16 or 1/500 at f/11, for instance).


Looking for the best beginner's film camera to use as a beginner? Look no further.


Achieving Your Desired Result

The Sunny 16 Rule isn’t just about getting a correct exposure—it’s also a tool for creative control. By adjusting your aperture and shutter speed, you can achieve different effects:


  • Shallow Depth of Field: If you want to isolate your subject from the background, use a larger aperture (smaller f-number) to create a shallow depth of field.

  • Deep Depth of Field: If you want everything in your scene to be in focus, use a smaller aperture (larger f-number).

  • Frozen Action: Use a faster shutter speed.

  • Motion Blur: Use a slower shutter speed.


 

The Sunny 16 Rule is a powerful tool in your camera bag. It’s a stepping stone from auto mode to manual mode, giving you more control over your photography. So the next time you’re out with your camera, give the Sunny 16 Rule a try—you might be surprised by what you can achieve!


Remember, photography is a journey. Keep exploring, keep learning, and most importantly, keep shooting!

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